Should the book of Revelation be read as a literal book? Are there any books in the Old Testament that correlate with the book of Revelation? Are we living in the times of tribulation?
Every book, for being a written account, is susceptible to various different levels of interpretation depending on the reader’s social location. So also the book of Revelation, which, as we know, has been interpreted in a variety of ways since the moment it left the hands of its author.
People through the ages have claimed to have found the right interpretation of this cryptic document, from the most ingenious to the most macabre. It has been used to demonize enemies and to encourage liberation, to instill hope in the midst of despair and fear in the midst of enjoyment. In sum, it has been used for whatever purpose the interpreter has wanted to use it. All of this is due to a basic lack of understanding of the genre of the book.
Revelation is an apocalyptic book, similar to the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, which belongs also to the same genre. This literary genre was used by oppressed people to express their trust in the, according to them, soon to arrive deliverance from God. They were convinced that God was on their side and was about to act on their behalf changing, as it were, the course of history. So they engaged in symbolic and prophetic writing that was more prescriptive than descriptive. That is, they portrayed things as they wished them to be, not as they actually were.
The visions of Revelation point at what the author and his/her audience hoped would happen in the near future in history, for their problems were real problems, rooted in history (oppression by the Roman Empire, persecussion by members of other religious groups and civil authorities, etc.). Revelation expresses the hopes of a believing community, but these hopes never materialized in the way they expected them.
Nevertheless, the belief in the final triumph of God and the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem remain as powerful symbols that have encouraged and still encourage the faithful to work for the kind of society which these symbols and metaphors point at. The general message of Revelation, minus its embedded misogynist flavor and its glorification of violence, can still be inspiring especially for those groups that feel marginalized and oppressed. But it can be deadly in the hands of the powerful and the affluent. That is why this book should not be read literally but only symbolically, theologically.
The interpretation of the book of Revelation is a difficult one because Revelation is unlike any other book in the New Testament. The first five books of the New Testament are narratives, the next 21 books are epistles, but Revelation is in its own category: an apocalypse, which is simply the Anglicized version of the Greek word usually translated as "revelation": _apokalupsis_.
The Old Testament also has an apocalypse: the book of Daniel, from which Revelation derives many of its images. Both these books were written in the context of imperial oppression, first with Daniel and the Seleucids (Greeks) and then with Revelation and the Romans. For millennia, both these books have given hope to people in desperate circumstances. For example, African Americans have used to Revelation to "keep their eyes on the prize" in the midst of slavery, injustice, segregation, and discrimination. The book, then, has been read to give "literal" (physical, economic, social, political) hope to those experiencing "literal" suffering, so in that way Revelation has been read as a "literal book."
Revelation has received renewed focus recently because of the threat of nuclear annihilation and ecological breakdown. Witness the movies "2012" and "The Book of Eli," to name just two "post-apocalyptic" movies out of many released in the last year or so. We are certainly "living in the times of tribulation," which includes war, famine, destruction, and violence all over the world. People sometimes say, though, that we are living in the times of THE tribulation, which refers to the suffering of God's people immediately prior to the second coming of Jesus.
Throughout human history, though, the world has often been a dangerous place for people who are pursuing peace and justice. Revelation, however, can help energize all of us to stand firm against the violence of empire and to stand in solidarity with all God's creatures (human and nonhuman), especially those broken by empire. In doing so, perhaps we can help usher in a new heaven and new earth.
For further information online on Revelation, see the various resources at New Testament Gateway.
The book of Revelation quotes extensively from the prophets of the Old Testament. The quotations from Daniel and Ezekiel are the most extensive, and Daniel would be the book that correlates the most with Revelation.
Serious interpreters of the book of Revelation have long differed greatly in how they interpret it. Some take it quite literally, and this is important to their Christian life. Some interpret not only symbolically, but also not particularly historically and see it as identifying truths of the faith that the church has known through the ages.
It can be interpreted highly symbolically, but yet historically with a message for events that are yet to come with both extensive rise of evil, but also with an intervention by Christ that will bring in the final age of eternal peace and resurrection. The picture of the evil to come can help prevent a distorting optimism about history and present institutions. The hope of Christ's return can give hope in times of persecution and discouragement.
The picture of tribulation that it presents is not what we experience now, and realizing that can prevent despair. There is significant ethical teaching also. A powerful warning in the book of Revelation is the critique of systemic oppression by the economic powers in chapter 18 and confidence in wealth even by the church in 3:15-22.
There is a book in the Old Testament that is of the same genre as Revelation, the book of Daniel. But they are not referring to the same events. Both are apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature shares certain characteristics. It is addressed to a community undergoing persecution. It is written in cryptic language (using strange images, metaphors, allegories, numbers, etc) so that if the persecutors get a hold of the writing they will not understand what is being conveyed. Its goal is to encourage the continued faithfulness of the persecuted community. People in those communities would have understood the symbolism in the visions because they represented the political and social situation of their own time period.
The function of apocalyptic literature is not to predict the future. It is to provide insight into current conditions and to encourage the Jewish or Christian community to not give up hope. These books assure the faithful that they will be rewarded in the end for their faithfulness.
Some people in this world are living in unbelievable times of tribulation because they have experienced war, starvation, rape, mutilation, displacement, tsumamis, earthquakes and other human and natural disasters. Other people are living quite comfortably on the same planet at the same time. Whether “we” are living in times of tribulation depends upon where “we” live. Apocalyptic literature is useful to us because it witnesses to the truth to which it points. Namely, that faithfulness is possible even under the worst of circumstances. People of faith respond to tribulation by providing help, learning from these experiences and finding ways to prevent them from happening in the future.
Whatever the "time" is, it's always time, according to God's word, to be kind to our neighbors, protect the widows, the stranger, and the orphan, honor our parents, and avoid lying and theft.
That's such a tall order, it would seem to leave very little time over for worrying about the literalness of Revelation or what historical or non-historical time it is.
1. Should the Bible be read as a literal book?
Absolutely not. Biblical writers and readers knew the difference between parable and the practical. And Revelation is not written with an eye on the cold, hard facts; it is written in code. It is to be read and interpreted with 3-D glasses on, because it is full of special effects that exaggerate and dramatize a relatively simple story: namely, that there is a battle going on out there, between good and evil, and faithful people need to hang in there, and keep on keeping on, because it could get worse before it gets better.
2. Are there any books in the Old Testament that correlate with the book of Revelation.
Absolutely yes. The Book of Daniel is the template for Revelation. Really, Revelation is its re-make, with more details, special effects, plot twists, and in the light of the Incarnation, a new leading actor. In Daniel, the leading role, "One Like A Son of Man," had been played by the angel Michael. In Revelation, of course, the Son of Man, a.k.a., the Lamb, the action hero who defeats the beasts of chaos, is played by a former carpenter from Nazareth (check out those forearms!).
3. Are we living in the times of tribulation?
There are two ways to answer this question. Absolutely yes and absolutely not.
Absolutely, yes. If we saw the world with the eyes of God, and not from our own egocentric perspective, is there any day or week or month or season or year or era of life on planet Earth that hasn't been tribuliciously turbulacious?
This morning I read about a two-year old found naked in the hallway of an apartment building in Boston in the Sunday paper. Every day on Planet Earth is as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, the best of times and the worst of times for someone. Grim without end, Amen, Amen.
So, yes, we are llving in the times of tribulation. Honest folks need to bring their best game, and to get serious about caring for the poor and redeeming the time and seizing the moment to help somebody as we travel along. No one is promised tomorrow. We are all on borrowed time. From the minute we are born, we are old enough to die.
AND absolutely not. Every generation since John of Patmos has imagined that the scenarios in Revelation would play out in their time. That's twenty centuries worth of generations at the rate of three 33-and-a-third long-playing records per century: so let's say, 60 generations since Revelation was composed. It ain't happened yet. There are plenty of people who sometimes think they want the Apocalypse (the title of the book in Greek). The End of Days, Kingdom Come, Judgment Day: use whatever term you prefer. Really, it is the ultimate Snow Day: no school, the test is postponed,and it is an enticing fantasy when you haven't finished your homework. But it gets boring after the first day, and you realize that the quiet drama of everyday life is more compelling than the suspension of normality.
From about 200 B.C. until about A.D. 100 among Palestinian Jews, “apocalyptic” was a major current of thought and belief. “Apocalypse” means “revelation,” and followers of the “apocalyptic” movement believed that they were indeed in the “end times” or “times of tribulation.” But they also believed that God had given to certain prophets a special “revelation” of how history was going to turn out—not a literal vision, but a vision of many symbolic beings and events that symbolized what was going to happen—and that these prophets had written down a description of what they had seen in that “revelation” or vision. The last half of the Book of Daniel, chaps. 7-12, is one example of “apocalyptic writing,” describing for example in chap. 7 various fantastic beasts symbolizing various empires that had oppressed Israel, but ending with “one like a son of man” (7:13) who represented the coming personal representative of the “Ancient of Days” (God) and who as such—unlike the previous beasts—would rule Israel in a human and humane fashion, with truth, peace, and justice for all.
In the New Testament, Jesus and Paul believed that the Kingdom of God would come soon, and Jesus even preached it and described it in his sermons and teaching. But the most thorough symbolic description of the coming Kingdom of God is given to us in the book of Revelation (“apocalypse” in Greek) by John on the island of Patmos. John implies that he had been exiled to the island of Patmos by the Roman Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81-96), who in his last years exercised a paranoid reign of terror. On Patmos John did indeed have symbolic visions of how the coming Kingdom of God would be immediately prepared for (letters to the seven churches, etc.); how the dragon, the beast from the sea, and the beast from the earth would be vanquished (Rev. 12-13); how the Kingdom of God would come, and what it would be like. These visions he wrote down for us in the book of Revelation.
Today we no longer believe that the Kingdom of God is about to come immediately to put an end to history and “the kingdom of this world.” It will happen, but not any time soon. – How then are we to interpret these “apocalyptic” passages in the Bible? The same way as we interpret the opening chapters of Genesis. Those chapters were written when there was hardly any such thing as “history,” and no such thing at all as “science,” in the modern senses of those terms. So we cannot take them literally as history or science. But we can and do still accept and treasure their theological meaning for us. – So likewise with the apocalyptic writings in the Bible. Even though we no longer believe that the world is about to come to an end immediately, we still believe that at some time—not in my lifetime, and not in yours; not in the foreseeable future, but at some time known only to God—Christ will “deliver the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (I Cor. 15:24), and “the kingdom of the world” will “become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
The book of Revelation is commonly undestood by scholars of various
religious persuations as directed to the very churches named and
specifically addressed in the opending chapters, Christians living
sometime in the late first century AD. It (like all true biblical
prophecy) was intended to be immediately applicable to the intended
recipients (those seven churches), urging them to be strong in the
face of any opposition from society and Roman government.
Its place in the New Testament means that Christians in the second century and
thereafter found its exhortations to be strong in faith, its
revelation of the bestial face of evil, and its glorious assurances of
divine victory and of their own vindication all very meaningful.
Any reader familiar with the Old Testament can also detect the many
allusions to various OT passages, images, and themes. The author of
Revelation was obviously steeped in his OT scriptures and drew upon
them as a kind of reservoir of images, phrases, and themes, which were
creatively re-appropriated to communicate his own sense of God's
revelations to him.
It is, in fact, a trivialization of the book to treat it as some kind
of simple predictive chart of events unfolding on the evening news, as
an allegory of Newsweek. All the sensationalizing publications
(which, incidentally, have been very successful financially for the
authors and publishers) distort and dilute this amazing and powerful
text. Scripture should not be the plaything of trivializing interests.
For a readable and sound approach to biblical prophecy and the theme
of the future and "end", I recommend Craig C. Hill, In God's Time:
The Bible and the Future (Eerdmans, 2002).